The first local authorities applied for ABS licences last year and are still waiting for approval. What’s the hold up?

Lawyers in tutus, fire-eaters on stilts and people dressed as trees were among the fun costumes on display at the London Legal Walk this year. But for me the most amusing outfits were the t-shirts worn by the London Borough of Lambeth’s legal team with the slogan: working on our ABS. (This may also be a sign I’ve been here too long.)

Seeing Lambeth’s young energetic team embrace this new model of business seemed fitting – next generation legal services in every respect. Lambeth even likes the ABS idea so much it wants to set up two of them. But it’s not the only local authority eager to adopt this model. And of course a few have already applied.

Last year the London boroughs of Harrow and Barnet become the first to apply to become a local-authority owned ABS under the name HB Public Law.

Hot on HB’s heels came Buckinghamshire County Council and the Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Fire Authority, which jointly applied for one shortly after.

All that’s left now is to wait for the licence.

And wait.

Originally both applicants were supposed to get an ABS licence in April. Then that deadline slipped back to May, June – and now July. So what’s the hold up? 

Insurance cover apparently has been an issue, but I understand both applicants have now obtained this. Hiccups regarding documentation also needed resolving. And additional questions from the Solicitors Regulation Authority about risk and conflict management had to be answered.

As these are the first authorities to put their money where their mouths are and submit an ABS application, it’s understandable that the process might take a while. After all this is new ground for everyone involved. But time isn’t necessarily something local authorities have in abundance.

In April Philip Thomson, director of Essex Legal Services and incoming president of Lawyers in Local Government, warned: ‘If local government lawyers stand still our work could evaporate.’

Many local authorities are increasingly outsourcing their services in order to meet stringent cuts. But practice rules currently prevent in-house teams from taking on outsourced public sector work. So they’re seeking an ABS status just to maintain their client base.

There’s also the imperative to raise additional funds. According to Hugh Peart, director of legal at HB Law, an ABS licence could allow councils to generate extra income as the heaviest austerity cuts are expected to fall within the next four years. ‘Our budget will go down by 60% by 2018,’ he said last month. ‘All other cuts we’ve had so far are trifling in comparison.’

It’s now time to see the first local authority ABS early-adopters coming through in order to test the viability of this model for local government.

Otherwise next year the London Legal Walk wear might read: I applied for an ABS and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

Kathleen Hall is a Gazette reporter